In My Own Words: Poetry and revisiting the past

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The Facebook friend request came with a message. Someone I haven’t seen for more than 20 years tracked me down and discovered I was still working. What provoked this search is that the informal Zoom minyan she takes part in had recently been discussing poetry and she remembered my book of poems, “I Stand By the River.” She wanted to share some of the poems with the other members of the minyan and wondered if I wanted to join them.

To understand why my immediate reaction was yes, you have to understand the synagogue to which she belongs, Or Hadash, and what it means to me. Temple Beth of El of Endicott, which had been my second home for years, closed just after the High Holidays the first year I attended rabbinical school. Not only was I losing that home base, but I was moving and going back to school in my late 30s. To say things felt unstable is an understatement.

Even though Or Hadash originally met in the same building that housed the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, it took me a few months to learn about it. I was attending other services, but none of them felt like the right fit. While the service at Or Hadash was very different than any I’d experienced before, I immediately felt at home. When leaving, someone said, “We hope to see you again.” My thought was, “You won’t be able to keep me away.”

At that time, Friday night was the main service at Or Hadash. There were some Saturday morning ones when the Hebrew school held class services. My second year at RRC, a few students who attended the synagogue and I began leading Saturday morning services, mostly because that was where we wanted to be on Shabbat. At one point, the congregation decided to buy a building in Fort Washington, PA. Then I was asked to be on the board, which, since Or Hadash is a Reconstructionist synagogue, was a very different experience from any other board I’ve been on. 

Or Hadash not only became my new second home, but its rabbi, Vivian Schirn, became one of my mentors. For the minyan including my poetry, we arranged a date when Rabbi Vivian could also attend, which was early in December. The minyan runs from 8:15-9 am, and opens with a song and prayer, and closes with a healing prayer and the Mourner’s Kaddish. In between, its attendees do a variety of things, but retain what was one of the things I loved about Or Hadash: wonderful conversation about a wide variety of topics.

It’s was wonderful to see people I knew when I was at Or Hadash and those who joined after I left the area. I also enjoyed listening to their comments and questions. The current rabbi of the congregation, Alanna Sklover, spoke about a poem I wrote and read about Zilpah and Bilhah – maid servants of Jacob who gave birth to four of his children – and mentioned a d’var Torah given recently by one of her bar mitzvah students that opened even more thoughts about the matriarchs of Israel. I was reminded of Saturday mornings at Or Hadash when the Torah discussion would turn and twist into different and fascinating directions.

I received an e-mail after the event suggesting we should do this again. I immediately agreed and suggested some dates in January. Whether or not that actually happens, I will cherish what occurred that morning. It brought back wonderful memories of my time there and reminded me of the days when I wrote about my experiences in poetry, rather than prose. 
Writer’s note: One of the poems I was asked to read was one I wrote about Rabbi Vivian. She taught me how to transform a room into a holy place that transcends its surroundings. I still use what I learned from her. What follows is that poem:

“She transforms the space,/ Not with the wave of a magic wand/ Or the help of incense and flames/ But with her presence, her words/ Turning the room, the time, our minds/ From the profane to the sacred./ I know we each have the power to make a Sabbath/ But how many of us still search/ For the calm that makes the day/ More than a day of rest but a day of sanctity./ To know that no matter what sorrow awaits us,/ We have a time, even be it for a moment,/ To feel Shabbat’s shelter of peace protecting us./ Yes, we all have the power to make a Sabbath/ But sometimes it is locked away inside us/ And the Rabbi, with her words, her presence/ Has the key to open that lock and free our spirits/ So we can greet the Shabbat as our bride/ Praising her beauty/ And find her peace and glory in our hearts.”